Copyright © 1998 Henrietta W. Hay
And Then Again at Eighty-two
April 23, 1996
Some people deny that they have birthdays. Some celebrate them with fireworks. And then there are
those who become famous and whose birthdays are celebrated forevermore.
I don't want fireworks, but I can't see any point in denying my 82nd birthday this week. I have
outgrown motorcycles and hot air balloons. I have outgrown ceremony, formality and meetings.
This year I'll settle for family, friends, pizza -- and a cake with maybe two candles.
One's birthday is for remembering.
My first reaction to writing this is, "My gosh, what would my mother think?", which tends to prove
that there are some things we never outgrow, some voices which are always with us. To her, as to most
women of her generation, her age was a most private piece of information. She would no more have
admitted her age at any time after she became 18 or so than she would have appeared in public
undressed. I began to suspect that she might be approaching senior citizenship when she and my father
celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
George Sand, who certainly led a more exciting life than I have, lived to be 72. In her late years she wrote,
"The thing is that when one's old, in the sunset of one's life -- the best time for richness of colour and
light -- one acquires a new approach to everything... When you feel your own "self" getting less intense,
you love people and things for what they are in themselves, what they represent in the eyes of your soul."
The black and white of youthful certainty are becoming a bit more gray with experience. It makes the
colors richer -- just as deep, but richer. I have re-gained my sense of wonder . What I think I have to do
in the last quarter of my life is to make some sense out of all the passages of a lifetime. There are, of
course, some facts on which I can tie my fading memories. But it is not the facts that are important. It is
the feelings, the meaning. So I will re-invent my past as I choose to remember it, which is not necessarily
the way I lived it. How did I get from where I was to where I am?
I wish I could remember in more detail my progression from being a born and raised Republican to
becoming a liberal Democrat.
At what moment did I become an active feminist? When did I hear that little "click" that made me realize
that there is major injustice here and I must try to do something about it?
When did I realize that I am a political person? My mother was a delegate to the Republican national
convention in Philadelphia that nominated Wendell Willkie. I marched in Denver with NOW for the
Equal Rights Amendment. It seems that political interest can be inherited, even though the politics have
When did I first know what I want to be when I grow up? I think it was when I was 75, ceased being a
librarian and started to write a newspaper column. Some people discover it sooner! Writing has always
been a part of my life, but it is truly the joy of my eighth decade. How else can I reinvent my life and have
fun doing it?
How did two tiny infant boys who made parenting such a joy, suddenly -- overnight it seems now --
become two fine, caring, funny, intelligent men who tower over me and say, "Go for it, mom?"
At 40 I knew most of the answers to almost everything. At 82 the answers aren't so clear, but I am still
having a lot of fun with the questions. I want my sons and grandchildren to do a better job of fixing up
the world than my generation did, but that's their responsibility. Meanwhile, like Caroline Bird's salty
old woman, I wake up every morning, wondering what is going to happen and looking forward to it,
whatever it is.